Boulez [In]Complete Work(s) in Progress

Grant Chu Covell

[October 2013.]

dg_4806828 naive_mo782183

Pierre BOULEZ: Complete Works. Var. perfs. Deutsche Grammophon DG 4806828 (13 CDs) (

Pierre BOULEZ: Mémoriale, Dérive 1, Dérive 2. Fabrice Jünger (fl), Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain, Daniel Kawka (cond.). Naïve MO 782183 (1 CD) (

Released under Deutsche Grammophon’s imprint, this summary of the Boulezian world mid-2013 is a must-have for the true fan, even though its 13 discs probably duplicate items already on hand. Making no new friends, I only confirmed existing opinions. The most recent efforts appear to be the short piano item Une page d’éphéméride (2005) and Dérive 2 (2006). I wouldn’t say le maître terrible has mellowed.

DG’s box presents a contradiction: The front and sides declare “Complete Works” whereas the back states “Work in Progress.” A notorious non-finisher, even the composer’s last breath won’t bestow finality. In that regard, this brick is timely, perhaps overdue. Others who have been put off by the composer’s music and blunt pronouncements might argue this set is premature or wish that it speed the inevitable (Boulez turned 88 this year).

Among content culled from Assai, Andante, INA, Erato (now Warner), Sony, Harmonia Mundi, Naïve, Cybele, Radio France, Universal (the French side of the conglomerate), and of course DG, there are also a few first releases and reprints of scarce items. The music is programmed somewhat chronologically. I wish that years had appeared on the discs’ sleeves even if start dates mean little chez Boulez.

Will this set bring new fans? Perhaps if they are persistent. Boulez’s maximal palettes are rarely monotonous. If audiences have warmed to Boulez’s Mahler, Ravel or Bartók, they ought to try something of the grand maître’s own.

Le Marteau sans maître is essential Boulez, and either book of Structures makes a close second. The intrepid might find an ancient Sony with both, MK 42619, recorded March 31, 1985, with Elizabeth Laurence and members of the Ensemble InterContemporain led by Boulez (also including the twelve piano Notations).

Should someone ask for a recent sampler, I’d point them to a 2012 Naïve release (MO 782183) with Mémoriale, Dérive 1, and the 2006 version of Dérive 2. Timings are slightly slower, permitting more wiggle room for details.

Boulez: Dérive 1 and 2

Ensemble Intercontemporain
Ensemble Intercontemporain
Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain
Dérive 1 (1984)5:476:26
Dérive 2 (2006)43:5950:40

Highlights and favorites include Boulez’s piano works, among the most varied efforts in the literature. What’s here: Pollini’s energized Sonata No. 2 (from July 1976), the Kontarskys in Structures Livre I, the Trope and Constellation(-Miroir) of Sonata No. 3 is Paavali Jumppanen’s, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Florent Boffard join for Structures Livre II. Dimitri Vassilakis’ Incises (from a Cybele publication) brought Donatoni to mind with its sections of restricted scope.

Le Marteau sans maître is from Sep 2002 with Hilary Summers and the Ensemble InterContemporain led by the composer. During this visit with Le Marteau, Messiaen’s influence can be heard quite clearly.

Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna ranks near the top of my Boulez favorites. Perhaps it’s the prominent percussionists establishing tempos or the abstract loneliness. Messiaen’s influence stands out here too, as well as a particular melodic shape I associate with Sciarrino: a sustained note with restless activity at either end. There are many Rituels out there. I’m not sure I would have picked this one.

This Pli selon pli is the now-definitive 1989 version. I have already mourned an earlier incarnation. Regardless, I had to savor the great initial chord.

Boulez is an accomplished composer of concertos: Consider the works requiring solo cello (Messagesquisse), violin (Anthèmes series), flute (Mémoriale and “…explosante-fixe…”) and clarinet (Domaines series). I like the blippy, almost Ondes quality of the flutes and electronics in the tart “…explosante-fixe…” However, my attention wanders in both Domaines even if I’m glad the clarinet-plus-ensemble version is the 1971 Harmonia Mundi (HMA 190930) recording with Michel Portal and Musique Vivante led by Diego Masson.

Despite being a remarkable achievement for its time, I’m still not sold on Répons, the spatialization and other effects of which are obscure on recordings. The cimbalom and electronics do form lively colors. Eclat-Multiples interests more than Figures, Doubles, Prismes. I prefer Boulez’s orchestra when unlikely combinations of plucked and sustaining instruments create transient textures.

What’s new here? The five orchestrated Notations are live recordings with the Ensemble Modern Orchestra under Boulez from September 2007. I do hope he gets around to elaborating the remaining seven. I suppose there might be a long list of others’ Notations orchestrations some day, even though Boulez has preemptively warned against others rummaging through his drafts and scraps.

DG provides three historical performances: a 1964 Le Marteau sans maître, a 1950 mono Le Soleil des eaux, and Severino Gazzelloni and David Tudor at the Sonatine from 1956. Marteau is definitely worth hearing twice; the gongs are very present in this earlier recording. Judging from roster and year, this Marteau also lives on Adès 14.073-2 with a different Sonatine (Jacques Castagner and Jacqueline Mefano) and Messiaen’s 7 Haïkaï with Yvonne Loriod, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, and the Orchestre du Domaine Musical under Boulez. Listeners with historiographical tendencies can compare the two Le Soleil des eaux to savor mid-century performance practice: Roger Désormière conducts the Orchestre National de la RTF with vocalists Irène Joachim, Joseph Peyron and Pierre Mollet. It’s good to see Tudor’s discography grow.

The concluding disc presents a 2011 French interview with Claude Samuel intended expressly for this brick. There is an English transcription at the end of the 250-page French-and-English booklet with corresponding tracks subtly indicated in the margin. I didn’t follow the full 58 minutes to determine if it’s a one-to-one transcription. The sections I attempted to match were edited for clarity.

What used to be hard to find? Livre pour quatuor (1962) has fallen in and out of the official chronology. Perhaps Boulez wasn’t pleased with 41 minutes of serial splish-splash. The absent fourth movement is apparently unplayable, but that may change later this year or next as the Quatuor Diotima intends to take it on. Included here is the Quatuor Parisii from a 2001 Assai. Boulez unleashes far greater diversity when writing for his own instrument, the piano. The related string orchestra Livre pour cordes projects greater richness despite being a live recording from 1992.

What’s missing? Polyphonie X, Poésie pour pouvoir, the Ondes Martenot quartet, the tiny brass fanfare Initiale, and other officially withdrawn pieces. I imagine someone could inventory the retracted items. It’s interesting that there are no Robertson or Barenboim recordings.

What doesn’t exist? The Internet makes it possible to catch wind of intriguing possibilities: Marges, a long-ago proposed work for Les Percussions de Strasbourg; a violin concerto, perhaps Anthèmes 3, for Anne-Sophie Mutter; and most intriguing, an opera on Waiting for Godot targeted for La Scala. Presumably Boulez will enact his infamous solution to the “opera problem,” and at some point during the evening La Scala will be blown up.

* * *

Six releases on my shelves are now redundant if I don’t mind that the new package tends towards lighter program notes:

  • Sony SMK 45839 with Rituel and Eclat/Multiples. The note for this 1982/83 release remarks that Multiples “is still unfinished.” It’s apparently good enough some 30 years later.
  • Erato 2292-45494-2 (5/1990): Le Visage nuptial, Le Soleil des eaux, and Figures, Doubles, Prismes
  • DG 289 457 605-2 (11/1998) with Répons and Dialogue de l’ombre double is now disc nine. The original booklet has Andrew Gerzso’s helpful notes on the sound-distributing Spatialisateur software.
  • DG 289 463 475-2 (9/2000): Sur Incises, Messagesquisse and Anthèmes 2
  • DG 289 471 344-2 (4/2002): Pli selon Pli is now disc four
  • DG 445 833-2 (1995; reissued 1/2005 as DG 289 477 5385): Notations (for piano), Structures II and …explosante-fixe…

Two additional discs remain if only because they hold at least one non-reissued item:

  • DG 477 5327 (2/2005): Le Marteau sans maître was plucked, but this Dérive 1 and Dérive 2 (the 2002 version) were not.
  • Erato 2292-45648-2 (1991): DG claimed Sonatine, Sonata No. 1, Mémoriale and Cummings but passed over this Dérive (from when there was only one) and Dialogue de l’ombre double

* * *

Parting shot:

[A]ny musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but truly experienced – the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.”
– Boulez, 1952.


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